“First Blood”, a short story by Samantha Maguire and Dominika Waclawiak
Corporal Pajak watched her target through the scope attached to her custom rifle. It was a curious thing, staring at someone down the barrel of a rifle. Intimate. No one would ever be closer to—or hold more power over—that man than Pajak did. He had sandy brown hair, a light complexion, and freckles across his nose. He hadn’t moved so that Pajak could see his eyes, but she would have guessed a pale green, judging by the rest of his coloring. He moved with quick, jerked motions, as though unaccustomed to the feel of his own limbs. His features, though awkward, remained relaxed. He had no idea that he was being watched.
Pajak took a deep, silent breath, and inhaled the world around her. Behind enemy lines was the only place where Corporal Pajak felt alive. She could still recall the first time that she’d gone on an active op. She couldn’t remember the brief details anymore, only that her sergeant had won a medal. Some kind of rescue, maybe. Pajak had scouted a perfect location for sharpshooting, just like she’d been taught.
She would never forget how her father’s words had drifted up from her subconscious as she waited. “Preparation and positioning is everything, Lauren. And stillness. Don’t forget the stillness. Let the target come to you,” he’d said to her countless times. She double-checked her nightlines and position. He’d been the best sharpshooter she had ever encountered. She’d allowed herself to settle deep inside, into a still space somewhere within, her breathing slowing to a meditative in-and-out pattern.
And then she’d spotted the target through her scope. It occurred to her that the woman—had she been fair or dark? Pajak couldn’t remember anymore—was not a simulation. She wasn’t a practice android. She was a flesh-and-blood target.
As though by magic, the world had changed around Pajak. Adrenaline raced through her veins in a furious stampede of thrill. As though opening her eyes for the first time, Pajak saw color the way that she assumed the rest of the world did. She noticed smells, the feel of a soft breeze on her cheek, for which she had adjusted the rifle two ticks. And when she’d squeezed the trigger and watched through the scope as the beam fired down to its unaware target, she had felt the heat of the weapon against her cheek like the blush of a virgin. Her father had beamed when she described the experience. They finally had a common language.
Since that moment, Pajak had lived for the thrill of action. She tolerated the rest of the world with its mundane, gray details and its boredom. Other members on her squad had their reasons for bravery: some wanted medals, others wanted the valor of sacrificing their safety and eventually their lives for something greater than themselves. Pajak wanted only to feel the rush of life race through her.
So it was with something that bordered dangerously close to a smile that she watched her target from the relative safety of her perch. Hidden. Silent. Waiting.
The target, an engineer at an armored and well-defended station, had protected himself well. Even from her vantage point, Pajak would have to wait for him to move just so into the thin window of opportunity. She didn’t mind. Pajak was accustomed to waiting. It was the job of a sniper to sit silently for hours at a time, if necessary.
So she waited, and she watched, and she kept her laser-focused attention directed down the scope to the crosshairs that rested just inches from the engineer’s left ear.
She paid no mind to what would happen once the shot was fired. Snipers were most vulnerable then, when they revealed their position. Her team would lay covering fire, and Pajak would slip back into the access tunnel she’d used to get to her perch. She could hide in the darkness until the sounds of battle eventually quieted, just like they always did. And then, for an hour or two after the operation was complete, she would breathe and eat and drink and live like she could at no other time.
But none of that mattered now. All of those details existed in some future that she hadn’t yet written. For now, the only things that existed were Pajak, her target, and the heat-core rifle butted into her shoulder and buzzing almost imperceptibly. It was ready. She was ready.
Six active mechs patrolled the area. On the other side of a thick steel wall, a platoon of Stronghold prisoners waited for her unit to rescue them. Every step the mechs took echoed in the great metallic space. Though she couldn’t see them, Pajak trusted that the rest of her squad waited in their positions on the other side of the only ship parked in a bay that could have held two dozen passenger freighters. Six mechs, impossible odds for most, but her team could handle them. It was the inactive mechs lining the walls of the bay they couldn’t risk. And the engineer who could activate them still leaned forward at his station. All he had to do was relax back into his chair.
Pajak counted her breaths. The world again fell away. So focused that she could hear and feel her slowing heartbeat. So-called impossible shots could only be taken successfully during the space in between two beats. She steadied. She watched.
While watching the target, Pajak felt the hairs along her forearms and at the back of her neck begin to stand on end. Her slow and steady breathing paused. She didn’t remove her eye from the scope, but she pulled her attention back, toward her ears. In addition to the high-pitched humming of the plasma rifle in her hands, she became aware of another high-pitched sound. A ringing. And then a beep.
She barely had time to recognize the familiar sound of a readied charge before the world erupted around her. A low, impossibly low, roar bellowed from somewhere below. Pajak felt a force throw her. She flew, weightless and formless, into darkness.